« VorigeDoorgaan »
of usefulness in the church of God, is in itself highly honourable; and that, in respect of dignity, of utility, and of personal satisfaction, the ministerial function, rightly discharged, is to be placed above the most splendid secular employments.
He was ordained a minister of the gospel, and became minister of the parish of Kirkintilloch in 1744. In 1753, he was translated to the borough of Culross; and was brought from thence to Edinburgh in 1758, where he was appointed minister of the New Greyfriars church, and afterward of the Old Greyfriars, in conjunction with the celebrated Dr. Robertson, who had been his fellow-student.
At these different places he enjoyed the esteem and affections of his people. They were proud of having a man of his rank, piety, and learning for their minister; and deeply lamented his removal from them. They were delighted and improved by his instructions in public and in private; and the poor and distressed, of every condition, who had been relieved by his charity, or consoled by his sympathy and advice, loved him sincerely; and long after spoke of him with gratitude and respect. His attention to the duties of the pastoral office was exemplary; and such as could not but secure the attachment of a discerning people. He was ever ready to assist them with his counsel: he grudged no time, and declined no labour, that could be employed in their service.
No man had a keener relish for the pleasures of conversation; but in these he did not indulge, considering his time as the property of his hearers. At college he had made great attainments in classical learning; and gave proofs of a capacity formed to excel in the walks either of literature or of science. Through the whole of his life, he retained a fondness for these pleasing studies; but he never suffered his pursuit of them to interfere with employments of a nobler and more important nature. He withdrew from company to his closet, not to enrich his mind with the stores of ancient wisdom, or to extend his fame by productions on subjects of taste and genius, but to edify the church with works of piety, and "to bring forth, out of his treasure, things new and old," for the benefit of them that heard him.
Whilst he faithfully discharged the laborious duties of the ministerial office, he was not negligent of literary studies. They were not permitted to engross much of his time; but they did not pass without a proportionable share of regard. Of this, many proofs might be given. We shall, however, only mention two: the first is, That no books of merit, either on the subject of literature or science, were published, which he did not read; and,
that as he obtained the earliest information of the state of knowledge abroad, so many foreigners, of eminence for their piety and · learning, were indebted to him for copies of new and valuable British works, of whose existence they often received the first intimation by the arrival of his present. But, besides this fact, we have another evidence of the same truth, equally indubitable, and not less to the doctor's honour; namely, his own publications. Between 1742, the year in which he was licensed, and the year 1798, the year in which his sermons appeared, the literature of Scotland had suffered a complete revolution. In nothing was the change more apparent than in the manner in which the services of the pulpit were conducted. At the former period, sermons abounded with diffuse illustrations; and were disgraced by colloquial phrases, and vulgar provincialisms. In these later years, pulpit composition has attained a dignity and elegance, of which our forefathers had no conception. Whoever, therefore, reads the discourses of Dr. Erskine, which, in purity and energy of style, no less than in precision of thought and originality of sentiment, may challenge a comparison with any contemporary sermons, must be sensible that their author, whose education had been completed sixty years before their publication, must have paid no common attention to literary composition, who could watch the variations of taste, keep pace with its improvements, and adapt his productions to the style of the day. Such must be the inference of every one who examines the work in question. But this conclusion, honourable as it is to his memory, is short of the truth.
To his praise, let it be subjoined, that he did not servilely imitate the refinements of others, or allow himself to be passively borne along with the stream of fashion. His labours contributed to accomplish that revolution to which we have just now alluded, and to form that standard which we admire. He indeed had nobler objects in view than the bare information of the literary taste of his countrymen. But he was not, however, by any means indifferent to this object. In the detached sermons which he printed when a country clergyman, there was a propriety and correctness which had never been exhibited in any religious productions of North-Britain, and which was scarcely surpassed in the English language at that time. His Theological Dissertations, which appeared so early as 1765, contain several masterly disquisitions on some highly interesting branches of divinity. The subjects indeed did not admit a display of eloquence; but throughout the whole, he has shown great soundness of judgment, as well as an intimate acquaintance with the doctrines of the gospel, and history of the christian church.
Indeed, as we have already hinted, with him, learning was only the handmaid of religion. He gave the latter the first place in his regard; and cultivated other pursuits only so far as they qualified him for the more competent discharge of his pastoral functions, and enabled him to promote, with greater success, the eternal interests of man. These were the objects, towards the accomplishment of which, he directed every power of his mind; and nothing on earth ever gave him purer satisfaction, than to see the salutary effects of his own ministrations, or to hear of the progress of religion in foreign parts. About the time that he obtained license, a remarkable concern for religion had appeared in the States of North-America. To obtain the most early and authentic intelligence relative to that great event, he commenced a correspondence with the principal agents in that affair. Nor was his epistolary intercourse confined to American divines. He soon established a communication with several men of distinguished piety on the continent. This correspondence, which he assiduously cultivated during the whole of his long and laborious life, was at last carried on with many of the successors in the third and fourth generation, from his first correspondents. Besides requiring much time to answer the numerous letters he received from abroad, his acquaintance with foreigners multiplied his labours in another respect. In consequence of having thus rendered himself so extensively known, and of his general character being so high, the friends of many eminent deceased divines, were solicitous to put the manuscripts of their relations, which had been intended for the press, into his hands. The trouble which attended the revisal and correction of many of these publications, was immense. But his active and benevolent spirit shunned no toil that promised to be productive of general good. To his voluntary labours in this way, the religious world is indebted for the greater part of the works of presidents Edwards and Dickenson, of Stoddard, and of Fraser of Alness.
Such was his desire to obtain information of the state of religion, morality, and learning, that, besides this correspondence with foreigners, which he had early established, and constantly maintained; at a very advanced period of life, by his own private application, he made himself master of the Dutch and German languages. These opened to him treasures of which he had hitherto but little knowledge. The fruits of his labours in these fields, soon appeared in the first volume of "Sketches and Hints of Church History, and Theological Controversy, chiefly translated or abridged from Modern Foreign Writers, Edinburgh, 1790." A second
volume was published in 1797. These volumes contain the most extensive, interesting, and authentic information respecting the state of religion on the continent, which has of late been presented to the christian world. When the last volume appeared, the times were peculiarly eventful. The nations of Europe were convulsed, and ruin was threatened to every ancient institution, religious or political. Men saw with terror the progress of revolu tionary principles. But while they contemplated with astonishment the events of the past, and the horrors of the present, they were insensible to half their danger. A plan had been formed, and matured in secret, for the subversion of religion, and for the overthrow of the political establishments of Europe. Dr. Erskine, in his Researches into the State of Religion and Morals on the Continent, detected the existence of this horrid association, and was the first that gave the alarm to his countrymen.* Professor Robison and Abbe Barruel, soon after investigated its rise and progress, and unfolded its designs. Their patriotic labours were not in vain. Many good men, imposed on by the specious appearance it assumed, who were ready to give it their support, were thus recalled to a sense of reason and duty; and a thoughtless multitude, who, though not destitute of natural conscience, are ever fond of change, shrunk with horror from their wishes, when they saw the principles of that new system of politics and religion completely developed, which they were about to substitute in place of the old one. When, in consequence of this disclosure, the effects of these dark designs were averted, and reason and order in these latter years prevailed, the heart of the good old man, who loved his religion, and who had studied and admired the British constitution, overflowed with gratitude and joy. Ever after, he reflected with satisfaction on his having contributed to save the nation from such calamity, and to preserve her present privileges.
His zeal to advance the interests of religious truths, led him likewise to take a principal share in the business of the society in Scotland for propagating Christian Knowledge, of which, so long as his strength remained, he was an active and useful member. When, through the infirmities of age, he was unable to attend its meetings, such was the confidence which the directors had in his information and judgment, that when any difficulty occurred in the management of its affairs, they were in the habit of consulting him at his own house.
His feeble bodily constitution soon felt the approach of old
Preface to Sketches, vol. 2. p. 6, 7, 8.
age. For many years past, his appearance was that of a man whose strength was gone. For several winters he had been unable to preach regularly; and for the last thirteen months of his life, he had not preached at all. Before he was entirely laid aside from public duty, his voice became too weak to be distinctly heard by his congregation. Still, however, the vivacity of his look, and the energy of his manner, bespoke the warmth of his heart, and the vigour of his mind. His mental faculties remained unaffected by his bodily decay. His memory was as ready, his judgment as acute, his imagination as lively, and his inclination for study as strong as in his youthful years. To the last hours of his being, he was busily employed in those pursuits which were the business and pleasure of his life. Since 1801, he had published five numbers of a kind of periodical pamphlet, entitled "Religious Intelligence from Abroad;" and on the week before his death, he sent his bookseller notice, that he had collected materials for another number. His great modesty and diffidence in his own talents, rendered him averse to publishing much of his own, while he was ever ready to bring forward the works of others. The public regretted that he spent his time in labours of this kind; and his friends remonstrated against the impropriety of his depriving the world of the benefit of his own productions. He felt the force of these remonstrances, and, in 1798, published his Doctrinal and Occasional Sermons, one volume, octavo; after which, he was engaged, as his health permitted, in preparing for the press a volume of Practical Discourses, and a work of a similar nature with his Sketches of Church History and Theological Controversy. The sermons, it is expected, will soon appear: but, owing to a peculiar obscurity in his hand-writing, the great mass of his other manuscripts will be lost to the world.
While thus actively and usefully employed, his life was fast hastening to a close. No acute disease announced his dissolution; his death was sudden, but gentle and easy. In the circumstances of it the words of Dr. Young seemed to be realized,
On Tuesday the 18th January 1803, he was occupied till a late hour in his study. About 4 o'clock on the morning of the 19th, he was taken ill. The alarm was immediately given to his family; but before they could be collected around him, he expired. "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of that mani is peace."